HoCoPoLitSo has a history of pulling together people, words and music. A forty-year history, in fact.
On Oct. 22, HoCoPoLitSo made history again at a celebration of its fortieth anniversary, a free multi-media event called “A Word of Difference: Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne Celebrate History and Creativity.”
For the first time, prodigy violinist Joshua Coyne and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove shared the stage to perform works inspired by an almost-forgotten eighteenth-century Afro-Polish musician — George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower. Dove read poems from her biographical book of poems about Bridgetower, Sonata Mulattica, and Coyne played his own composition, “Fingers,” a plaintive work meant to embody Bridgetower’s doomed career. The program was filmed by a crew from Spark Media for a documentary of the same name as Dove’s 2009 book, and a selection of scenes from the documentary premiered at the HoCoPoLitSo event.
Dove, whose book was described by the New Yorker as “a virtuosic treatment of a virtuoso’s life,” explained Bridgetower’s story at the reading. First, a musical tot is discovered in the servant’s quarters and given a tiny violin, an overbearing African “prince” as a father showcases his son’s prodigious talents, the boy’s talent blossoms under Haydn’s tutelage and the patronage of the Prince of Wales. Then, as a youth, Bridgetower meets Beethoven.
Beethoven and Bridgetower collaborate on an intricate sonata, which the going-deaf composer dedicates to his “crazy mulatto,” according to historical letters. Then the story turns even more soap opera: the handsome young Bridgetower either insults or flirts with or steals (according to one’s perspective) a young woman that Beethoven has been coveting.
The elder musician rages, tears up the dedication page, and Bridgetower retreats from Vienna in shame. His career skids to a halt a scant decade or so after it began. He dies in the London slums seventy years after he played in Paris to great acclaim.
Dove read a poem about the father giving his boy “The Wardrobe Lesson,” so he’ll dress in bright colors and flowing costumes to highlight his “exotic” background. She read “Augarten, 7 a.m.,” about the early-morning concert that premiered the sonata, which Beethoven later rededicated to violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer, who pronounced it so complicated it was “unplayable.” She concluded the reading with “The End, with Mapquest,” about her family’s trip to find the spot where Bridgetower died, in south London, asking at last, “how does a shadow shine?”
After Coyne’s two original songs were performed, one based on Langston Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred” and sung by Emmett Gabriel Tross, and the second played by Coyne on the violin, Dove and Coyne sat down for a discussion with the audience, moderated by HoCoPoLitSo board co-chair Tara Hart.
The two artists talked about when they first met and how they threw back and forth improvisations on free verse and piano music. And Dove explained that she formerly played cello.
“I must have music in my life,” she said. “Poetry can make the language sing, and like music, can create an emotion that is speechless.”
Coyne talked about playing the Bridgetower sonata, about it being a dialogue between the piano and the violin, and how “it is a killer,” he laughed.
And they offered advice to artists everywhere, on which work was the hardest they have composed (both agreed, they were all the hardest), and to learn to relax about creating.
“This is not a race to be an artist,” Dove said. “It feeds something in you.”
Coyne agreed: “Make sure you’re not going too fast to notice things.”
Outside, after the cheese and fruit were picked clean, and the red-clad volunteers from Columbia’s Delta Sigma Theta alumnae chapter had gone home, Dove lingered for photos and signatures on her books. Across the glossy foyer, sticky notes papered a column with thoughts about the evening written by audience members: “DEEP,” “inspiring,” “awesome,” they read.
This performance was presented free to audience members to commemorate the first reading HoCoPoLitSo offered, in November, 1974, by the late poets Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer. HoCoPoLitSo is grateful to partners and donors that made the evening possible — the Alpha Phi Alpha Foundation, Candlelight Concert Society, the Columbia Film Society, the Howard Community College Music Department and the Columbia (Md.) Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
To help HoCoPoLitSo continue pull together programs of this variety and quality, and make them available to all in the community, please consider making a donation.
Susan Thornton Hobby
A few weeks ago, I took a trip to the University of Maryland, College Park bookstore to purchase books for my classes this semester. I’ve done this enough times before that the process has become more of a script and less of a twisted Easter egg hunt.
While gathering my books, I noticed a difference in my book for psychology and my books for English literature. My psychology book is a large, heavy textbook. My books for English literature classes are book-books ranging from Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray to Sigmund Freud’s Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria.
I never realized this shift in my schoolbooks from textbooks to mostly book-books, probably because it happened so gradually. I don’t miss textbooks. There is a part in Deborah Eisenberg’s “The Girl Who Left Her Sock On The Floor”, in which the main character, Francie, is looking at a textbook and wonders, “who were ‘Editors Clark & Melton,’ for that matter, to be in charge of what was going on? To decide which, out of all of the things that went on, were things that had happened.” Textbooks are subjective summaries on various topics, parading themselves as objective facts. Don’t get me wrong; I am a huge advocate of the sciences. There is a place in this world for science and mathematics, and I am grateful for all of the young minds pursuing those fields of study. Science can offer the closest thing we will probably ever have to objective facts.
The humanities, however, do not summarize. The humanities give students raw materials and equip them with skills to critically analyze and interpret things for themselves. In my literature class, I’m not reading a chapter summary of Sigmund Freud in a textbook, like I am in psychology. I’m reading a book by Sigmund Freud. I get to decide what Freud was like and whether his science was “good” or “bad,” and how I think his writing influenced the world around him. How else do we know and understand the world other than by a collection of subjective experiences? Why should I put all of my trust in anyone else’s interpretation of the world when I have the ability to decide for myself?
If the humanities have taught me anything, it’s that what we know about the world is always changing. We get it wrong a lot. Sigmund Freud got it wrong, but there was a time when his science was understood as fact. The humanities have given me the ability to step outside of social norms and question History and Knowledge. The humanities have taught me to never say, “That’s just how we do it” but instead say, “How else can we do it?”
On the first day of class, one of my professors reminded us of a Saturday Night Live skit called “Pre-Chew Charlie’s” in which servers at a restaurant pre-chew their customers’ food. He told us that while we read any text, he wants us to “chew for ourselves.” That is why the humanities are so important. They are teaching our future generations to be chewers.
Chew on that.
Student on the HoCoPoLitSo Board
For twenty-three years, HoCoPoLitSo has brought a writer into the Howard County high schools to read and talk with students for a few hours. The teenagers meet a live writer, not someone sifted into the dust of textbooks.
Authors of all stripes have worked with Howard County students: slam poets, memoir writers, Native American poets, Bulgarian poets, African-American poets, journalists, poets with National Book Awards, fiction writers, poets with a clutch of photocopied poems that were printed in literary journals. What all of these writers have in common is a love of words, and of the capability to spark and fan the flame of conversation about literature in English classes and poetry clubs.
Joseph Ross, a D.C. poet, teacher and activist, is the next in HoCoPoLitSo’s line of illustrious writers-in-residence, which have included Lucille Clifton, Jean Nordhaus, Michael Dirda, Roland Flint and Michael Glaser.
Ross, the author of Meeting Bone Man (2012) and Gospel of Dust (2013), won the 2012 Pratt Library and Little Patuxent Review poetry contest with his poem, “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God.”
That winning poem touches on a theme that runs through Ross’s poetry — personalizing injustice. Many of Ross’s poems give a name and face to outrages like Darfur genocide, Civil Rights outrages, Gettysburg body counts, political kidnappings in Brazil. Ross also writes about Tupac Shakur, Cool Disco Dan (the graffiti artist who sprinkled D.C.’s walls in audacious letters), his veteran father and even Buddha.
“What makes Ross stand out is (more…)
It’s a new school year, and we asked teachers around Howard County and professors at Howard Community College what they are most looking forward to teaching and why. Here is what they said:
Catherine M. Mundy (Lime Kiln Middle) says, I am looking forward to teaching House of the Scorpion with my 8th graders […] because it is a perfect example of “science fiction” becoming “fact”. I love reading literature that is NOW – that students can relate to. […] Another novel I am looking forward to teaching is The Giver. While most teachers cover it in our science fiction unit, I am choosing to teach it during our Freedom Unit as an extension of the concept of freedom. The issues of social control and mind control are so pertinent in our world today – especially as you look at countries that face dictatorial control. It is a great novel to discuss the importance of being educated and having an education and not always accepting what is told or taught to you at face value. This compelling story shows that knowledge can be difficult, but “ignorance is bliss” is truly not the way to go. Living and learning through experience, regardless of how difficult, is what life is. Those experiences that individuals in a free society are allowed to have are what make us human. I guess I would be remiss in not mentioning studying Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I love showing my students that the human condition and human issues, emotions, and struggles haven’t changed much over hundreds of years.
Rita Guida (Howard Community College) says, I have two books that I really look forward to teaching. I teach A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini in Ethics in Literature, and I have been delighted with students’ reactions. Because it takes place in Afghanistan, it works to humanize people that we frequently see only as enemies. It provides an opportunity to introduce the sad history of the country and their own oppression. Hosseini’s use of female bonding reminds readers of the sacredness of family in every culture, and he has included heroic male characters as well as female characters. The other book that I love is the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I use this in By and About Women, and like A Thousand Splendid Suns, it educates students on life in a country often in the news: the Congo. It also provides an opportunity to explore the oppression of the region, and the five, distinct female narrators show varying reactions to the events that occur as the Congo seeks to become independent.
Stacy Korbelak (Howard Community College) says, I’m looking forward to teaching the play Ruined by Lynn Nottage which highlights human rights issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I’m excited that it will be coming to the stage at the Everyman Theatre in the spring, too.
Rick Leith (Howard Community College) says, Fahrenheit 451 because it’s still so timely; Bradbury said this book is about television taking over our culture, not censorship, and this is something the students can relate to and discuss especially considering that television is only one of many distractions driving students away from reading in today’s world. Censorship remains a valid theme, however, so I’m also using the novel as an introduction to our Banned Books Week observance.
Bradbury’s best-known work, Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, became an instant classic in the era of McCarthyism for its exploration of themes of censorship and conformity. In 2007, Bradbury himself disputed that censorship was the main theme of Fahrenheit 451, instead explaining the book as a story about how television drives away interest in reading: “Television gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was.” (www.biography.com)
Ryna May (Howard Community College) says, I am most looking forward to teaching Hamlet this fall. I love this play because I hope that students will come to see Hamlet as someone similar to themselves: a college student, a son, a friend, etc. He has powerful influences all around him demanding that he do certain things and act certain ways, but in the end, he realizes that he, and only he, is responsible for the choices in his life. And for better or worse, he embraces that. I also love Hamlet because I feel like I am still a student of this play, and even though I’ve read it many times, my students always help me see something new.
Elisa Roberson (Howard Community College) says, I enjoy teaching Antigone by Sophocles to the Ethics in Lit class because of the 180 degree change I get from students’ initial reaction and their reaction after reading the play. At the beginning of the semester I hold up the book during our discussion of course materials and I always get a response of rolled eyes or looks of disinterest. When I ask students if anyone has read anything written by Sophocles the response is this…cricket, cricket, cricket. When I ask if anyone knows who he was I get half-hearted replies involving the words “Greek, dead, and philosophy.” By the end of the play, the students are excited about the characters, defend the choices of different characters, and identify with character motivations. Once they’ve learned about the backstory of Antigone and the rest of the cast, the students cannot get enough. I’ve had more than one student say, “This play is better than anything on reality TV. It’s got love, death, betrayal…”
What are you teaching?
We’d love to hear in the comments below….
Recently, Howard Community College’s In The Spotlight TV show spent some time learning about HoCoPoLitSo. Check out what they discovered in this short segment.
A Word of Difference: Rita Dove and Joshua Coyne Celebrate History and Creativity
Wednesday, October 22, 2014 • 7:30 p.m.
Monteabaro Recital Hall
Howard Community College
In celebration of HoCoPoLitSo’s 40th year, former National Poet Laureate Rita Dove will read from her acclaimed most-recent book of poems, Sonata Mulattica, about historical Afro-European violinist George Bridgetower. Violin virtuoso Joshua Coyne will play original music inspired by literature. Coyne’s story as a young African-American classical musician is juxtaposed with Bridgetower’s in the upcoming documentary film Sonata Mulattica, which also features Dove.
Extended scenes from the film will premiere at the event, followed by a discussion with Dove, Coyne, and the film’s creators.
The book Sonata Mulattica has been described by the American Library Association as “a mischievous and sensuous cycle of linked poems that explores genius and power, class and race.”
Presented in partnership with Candlelight Concert Society, Columbia Film Society, the Howard Community College Music Department, and the Columbia (MD) Alumnae Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
Register HERE for this free event.
Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), in partnership with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, presents the Katia D. Ulysse Book Preview with a reading and pre-release book sale and signing on Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 7:30 p.m. at Monteabaro Hall in the Horowitz Arts Center at Howard Community College. The event is part of the annual Columbia Festival of the Arts; tickets to the event are $15, and available at the festival’s web site at www.columbiafestival.org/tickets.
Katia D. Ulysse is an intense new voice from Baltimore whose debut novel, Drifting, will be released in July. A recently discovered talent, Ulysse was invited by National Book Award-winning novelist Edwidge Danticat to be included in her Haiti Noir anthology. A lyrical novel, Drifting explores the lives of Haitian families aspiring to escape hardship and an earthquake’s devastation. The novel is set before, during, and after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti and takes readers from Haiti to the United States and back.
“Drifting is a remarkable debut by a phenomenal writer,” writes Danticat, who is also the acclaimed author of the 2013 release Claire of the Sea Light. “[T]his sublime and powerful book allows us to experience the joys and tragedies of ordinary and extraordinary lives, in small neighborhoods and big cities, in the present and the past. Katia D. Ulysse’s talent soarshigher and higher to expand both our hearts and our universe.” (more…)
It’s not often that Columbia hosts a national poet laureate. And even less frequently can we listen to a poet laureate whose publishing contract ran to six figures with Random House. Turns out, that’s not an oxymoron. It’s a Billy Collins.
On April 24, at the Blackbird Poetry Festival, HoCoPoLitSo brought to Columbia a writer who passes for a rock star in the poetry world. Collins, “the most popular poet in America,” according to the New York Times, drew groupies from as far away as Philadelphia and western Maryland. Collins read in the afternoon with students, and at an evening reading, thanks to a partnership with Howard Community College’s student life office, and humanities and English divisions.
As co-president of the HoCoPoLitSo board Tara Hart said in her introduction, Collins has brought poetry to the people, “down from the shelves and out of the shadows.”
But Collins says he doesn’t sit down at his desk and decide, hmm, today, I think I’m going to write a poem that will bring poetry out of the shadows. Instead, he says, “I’m just trying to write a good poem.”
He’s always thinking about the reader, he says, and alternating his attention between the reader and the poet. To that end, he opened his reading with “You, Reader.” His voice, particularly well-suited to his dry wit, is without affect, so it also worked with his poems that were more reflective, even sad, like the canine soliloquy, “The Dog on his Master.” (more…)
HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening of Music and Poetry was even more of a family affair than usual this year. Normally an occasion that parents and adult children (and occasionally a third generation) attend in their Irish wool and finest green, this year’s Irish Evening featured two poets who themselves are family.
Paula Meehan and Theo Dorgan have been poetry and life partners for decades. And from the stage on March 14, they talked about kindred, a word they used for Seamus Heaney, a huge presence of a poet who died August 2013 and who is being mourned throughout the literary world.
“Everyone feels like they’ve lost a member of their own family,” Meehan told Dorgan during that afternoon’s taping of The Writing Life, HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-to-writer interview show.
From Heaney to sassy Irish grandmothers to uprising revolutionaries, family was called up throughout the evening reading.
Dorgan started off reading “Speaking to My Father,” about his hard-working patriarch and what he must have thought about Dorgan’s labors as a poet: “I move the words as you moved the heavy tires./ I make the poems like you and Rose made children,/ Blindly, because I must.” (more…)
Contact: Pam Kroll Simonson, (443) 518-4568, email@example.com
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Howard County Poetry & Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), in partnership with Howard Community College’s Office of Student Life, English/World Languages Division, and Arts & Humanities Division, presents the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival from Monday, April 21 to Thursday, April 24, 2014, at Howard Community College (HCC). For the first time, this year’s festival opens with a four-day Poetry Film Festival featuring showings of five acclaimed films. The last day of the film festival coincides with a full day of Blackbird Festival events, including readings by two-term National Poet Laureate Billy Collins, called “the most popular poet in America” by The New York Times; workshops for HCC students by Bruce George, poet and co-founder of HBO’s Def Poetry Jam; readings by student poets from HCC; and on-campus patrols by the Poetry Police, who will award individuals carrying a poem in recognition of national Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day. The theme of this year’s Blackbird Poetry Festival is “Poetry Unmasked,” exploring the bare truths of poetry. (more…)